Restoring an Antique Farquhar Sawmill

Antique Farquhar sawmill is now a working collectible.

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Taking the first slab from the log (note the dial back gauge at right).

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Dave Pence's 1930s-vintage Farquhar sawmill is like a cat with nine lives. "I traded a junk pickup for a pile of junk sawmill," he recalls, explaining how he came to own the mill in the first place. It had languished in his yard for more than 20 years when Dave decided to give it away - but found no takers. Then he decided enough was enough. "I was going to throw it away," he says. "But I never got around to hauling it to the junkyard."

The remnants of the antique sawmill stayed put until three years later, when Dave took a closer look. Suddenly hooked, he began restoring the piece. Today, Dave's totally restored mill is a working asset at his home in Bluffton, Ind.

Dave relied on old catalog and magazine illustrations for guidance in rebuilding the Farquhar sawmill, which came to him without a splinter of a wood frame. He repaired and rebuilt virtually every piece, using scrap steel and a steel I-beam he had on hand. "I had a little idea of how it looked from a magazine picture, so I just started rebuilding it," he says. "It was just like Johnny Cash's Cadillac: one piece at a time."

The mill's mandrel was basically intact: The only thing Dave did to it was trim about 6 feet from the shaft, which was longer than he needed. Plus, he notes, "Lining up three bearings is a lot harder than lining up two bearings." The other bearings and pulleys were all good. "The gears are in really good shape too," he says. "I don't think this mill ever did a lot of work. My feeling is that a building fell in on it. You can see weld all over the place where they tried to salvage it but they must have abandoned that effort."

A new frame is built of 1-1/4-by-5/8-inch steel with the top corners trimmed to match the wheel. Dave tack-welded the steel to prevent warping and took extra steps to ensure the rails were perfectly straight. "After the track frame was finished, I tack-welded a bracket on one end of the I-beam and put an eyebolt on the other end," he explains. "Then I took a single run of 16 gauge soft steel wire and stretched that as tight as I could, right up to the breaking point. After that I lined up the track rail with that wire, and it turned out real good."

Dave also devised a versatile track system. "I made the track and positioned the pulleys for the cable so that I can put an extension on either end and it doesn't need to be heavyweight like the track," he says. "All it has to do is support the carriage when it runs farther out to the end. That way I can saw a log up to 36 feet long." He hasn't tackled anything of that size yet; other modifications would be needed if he did.

He crafted the antique sawmill's scale using hard-to-find parts given to him by a man who once built sawmill equipment. The scale's face is a salvaged stop sign with Plexiglas covering the dial. Calibrating the ratio on the amount the set shaft turns to the movement of the knees on the head block was a particular challenge. "To get the pointer on the dial to move the same amount the knees move, the ratio of the sprockets from the set shaft up to the 90-degree drive has to be proper," Dave says. "That was the tricky part of building the dial gauge on the back of the carriage." The end result allows much more accurate sawing, he says. One inch of travel on the knee equates to 2-1/2 inches on the pointer.

The mill's 54-inch blade (with 54 worn teeth) was in poor condition. "I think it had been thrown away and then salvaged," he says. "It had really big dimples in it when I first started using it." A smooth blade is critical to smooth sawing, so Dave tried a remedy he'd read about. He put two layers of heavy brown paper - grocery bags - over the bumps and then struck the blade with a hammer. "My theory is that the paper softens the blow enough that the hammer doesn't really pinch the steel between the hammer face and the anvil," he says. "I was surprised at just how hard I had to beat on the bump to flatten the blade."

Dave removed the blade's 54 teeth and reused only every other one. "The power requirement of a saw blade is determined by one thing: the number of teeth in the blade. If you cut the number of teeth in half," he says, "you can run the blade with a lot less power." He also built a small hoist to remove the blade, protecting him from injury.

When he removes the sawmill blade, he puts the bottom end of the hoist into the piece of pipe that is welded to the mill frame and swings the end of the hoist over the center of the saw blade. He unrolls the handcranked hoist to extend the cable so it will go to the bottom of the saw blade and puts the cable loop around a bottom tooth. At the top, directly over the blade's center, he attaches a small C-clamp with the hoist cable going through it. Then he cranks the cable until it is taut enough to take the weight off the shaft, removes the nut and swings the blade off and away from the saw. "It looks a little flimsy," Dave says, "but it will handle the blade, which weighs more than 100 pounds."

Tooth holders from a used saw blade can be salvaged for use in a new blade, but they're fussy. Each must be removed and replaced in sequence, one by one. "You can't put them back in to just any hole," Dave says. "If they are even slightly mismatched, the blade won't run straight. And the tension on the holders changes after the blade has been used."

Dave is in the process of building a log hauler. In the meantime he uses his 1967 Case 1030 to drag logs from the woods. He runs the mill with a Case LA but ultimately will use the 1030. "It's a 451-ci 101 hp, 6-cylinder diesel," he says. "With all the extra power from the 1030, the sawmill should run pretty good. I don't think it will even slow down with a big log."

By doing the work himself and scavenging parts, Dave has created a collectible that pulls its weight. "I still have less than $1,000 invested in the mill," he says, "and I have about 10 acres of timber. The whole idea of the sawmill was to clear out trees. When I get enough wood cut, I want to build a log cabin in the woods behind my house."

Dogs 'n' logs: Starting up an antique sawmill

On an antique sawmill, "dogs" atop the head blocks are used to hold the log in place while sawing. Farquhar mills have a unique dog system. While most other mills of the era feature Knight dogs with weighted levers holding the log, the Farquhar dogs have easier-to-manage, adjustable levers.

"These have far more holding power than what's delivered by the weight assembly on the Knight dogs," Dave says. "These dogs are not as fast as the very common 'gear dog,' but when you have people who are not used to using them, this type of dog is a lot easier. I like the Farquhar dog: You can release it when you are sawing a big log a lot more easily."

The first step in sawing is to place a log on the mill's carriage (often using a tractor with a front-end loader). Then, adjust the head blocks to match the length of the log. If the log has a split, correct positioning is important to minimize the number of boards affected.

Next, set the taper (or position a block behind the log on one end) to get the log in the proper position. Saw until there is a good flat on the log (if the log is too large, saw in as far as possible until the saw no longer protrudes from the top). Then turn the log back, away from the saw 15-20 degrees, allowing the blade to cut farther in. (There is some waste with large logs in that method.)

Finally, turn the sawed portion down on the carriage, enabling the saw to extend yet farther in. "The main thing to remember is that you don't want to keep going past the center of the log until you are ready to finish," Dave cautions. "If you do, the lumber may warp after it is cut." FC 

For more information: Dave Pence, (219) 824-2204.

Don Voelker is a freelance photographer and writer in Fort Wayne, Ind., specializing in tractors, farm equipment, historic sites, museums, barns and covered bridges. View his work at www.voelkerphotography.com.